Irving Kristol, who passed away last week at the age of 89, was like everyone's favorite uncle -- if the uncle were a transformative intellectual of empyrean stature. He was both a warm and approachable human being and a penetrating social critic. He was, in a very American way, a practical man, and his approach to ideas was always firmly and refreshingly reality-based.
Irving Kristol was born in New York in 1920, so it was inevitable that he would become, for a short time at least, a socialist. But even as a young socialist, Kristol was skeptical about the principal animating sentiment of the left: a belief in man's perfectibility. As early as 1944, Kristol wrote of his preference for "moral realism," which "foresees no new virtues" and is "interested in human beings as it finds them, content with the possibilities and limitations that are always with us." It was a Madisonian frame of mind and it would take him by degrees to the right.
Though the term "neoconservative" has come to be associated with a muscular foreign policy (when it is not a thinly veiled codeword for Jew), it began in the 1960s as a disparaging term for those liberals, led by Kristol and a few others, who were bent on doing something that made other liberals acutely uncomfortable: test whether their theories worked in the real world.
Through his quarterly journal, set ital The Public Interest end ital, as well as his indispensable column in the Wall Street Journal, Kristol turned his analytical attention to the programs of the Great Society. Did urban redevelopment really improve the lot of the poor? Did deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill work? Did welfare programs have unintended consequences? If these questions now seem obvious, it is because Kristol offered an early and perspicacious critique that has since become conventional wisdom. "The problem with our current welfare programs," he wrote decades ago, "is not that they are costly -- which they are -- but that they have such perverse consequences for the people they are supposed to benefit."